PBS’ 50th anniversary wasn’t supposed to be quite so interesting.
What the public broadcaster had expected was a forward-looking celebration of a half-century of service. But as with any other organization, PBS was forced to change plans in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, PBS has seen its mission made as clear as ever as it has spent its 50th year doing exactly what it was created to do — serve viewers of all ages with an array of programming designed to educate, enlighten, and yes, entertain.
“In many ways I feel that everything that we’ve done over the last 50 years has prepared us for this moment, for everything that we’ve done,” says PBS CEO Paula Kerger. “And so in a strange way, I can’t think of a better way to mark our 50th anniversary than to really be in deep service.”
Every institution in American life has had to pivot since the U.S. onset of the pandemic in March. PBS has pivoted in particularly PBS ways. Its first significant programming move proved to be one of its most important when, shortly after schools shut down in Southern California, Kerger fielded a call from the Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent.
“We worked with some teachers and some programmers,” Kerger says. “And we put a core schedule together, which we offered up as at-home learning.” That lineup, first implanted on PBS SoCal, became a template for public television stations across the country as communities nationwide entered lockdown and schools closed.
PBS’ longstanding association with children’s programming — from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “Sesame Street” to “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” and “Odd Squad” — is baked into its identity. “We started as ‘educational television,’” says Kerger.
When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, television was still a relatively young medium — and the power of broadcast consisted of only three commercial networks dominating the airwaves. The act created the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, which paved the way for PBS and NPR. Johnson said upon signing the act, “It announces to the world that our nation wants more than just material wealth; our nation wants more than a ‘chicken in every pot.’ We in America have an appetite for excellence, too. While we work every day to produce new goods and to create new wealth, we want most of all to enrich man’s spirit.”
Most viewers’ earliest associations with PBS come from exposure to children’s programming. But it also has long since established itself as a leader in a type of thoughtful programming that has difficulty finding a home on commercial television — even in the peak TV era.
The documentarian Ken Burns debuted his first film, “Brooklyn Bridge,” on PBS in 1981, 11 years after the broadcaster launched. He has since become as closely associated with the PBS brand as the late Fred Rogers.
“Public television is exactly what it says it is,” Burns says “Remember PBS’ initials. It’s not the Public Broadcasting System. The ‘S’ is for ‘Service.’ That’s the word — ‘service.’”
Burns’ programming has played a key role in PBS’ service to its viewers in recent months. Shortly after the pandemic shut down Major League Baseball’s regular season, Burns called Kerger to propose that PBS rebroadcast “Baseball,” the filmmaker’s series about the history of the so-called national pastime. But the conversation soon shifted to another Burns’ landmark film, “The Civil War,” and the role it might play in serving high-school age students and adults living in isolation during quarantine. That conversation led to a reconfiguration of PBS’ schedule, with Thursday night reimagined as a home for historical documentary programming.
Another, more current documentary project, “American Portrait,” had been set to serve as the centerpiece of PBS’ 50th anniversary celebration. Hailing from producer Radical Media, “American Portrait” was intended from the outset to be a multi-platform experience — with an emphasis on the digital platform — that would document how Americans are living now, by asking them to respond to questions such as “What does it mean to be an American today?” The material gathered from users would live first and foremost on the “American Portrait” digital platform, and some of it eventually processed into a documentary series.
But in spring how Americans were living changed radically, and PBS realized that “American Portrait” could be the ideal vehicle through which to address the pandemic. In May, PBS aired “In This Together: An American Portrait Story,” a documentary that relied on material submitted by everyday people to tell the story of the onset of the pandemic.
“The platform that we’ve built is allowing us to crowdsource everybody’s story across the country,” says John Kamen, CEO of RadicalMedia.
“American Portrait” has become a potential new addition to the stable of PBS programs that have themselves become institutions. For PBS and its long-running franchises, credibility has been a watchword. As misinformation moves freely and trustworthy sources of news are attacked routinely by no less than the president of the United States, PBS enjoys an exceedingly rare, broad public trust. That trust extends to shows from “PBS NewsHour” to “Nova,” but is also derived from them, too.
“PBS is absolutely essential to ‘Frontline’ — our brands are symbiotic,” says Raney Aronson, executive producer of the WGBH-produced documentary series.
Focusing on current affairs “Frontline” has tackled not only COVID-19, but also, through digital extensions such as podcast “The Frontline Dispatch,” moved quickly to address even more rapidly evolving stories such as the reemergence of the Black Lives Matter movement after the killing of George Floyd and others.
“PBS has never shied away from us telling those important stories,” Aronson adds.
But just as Johnson hoped that public media would “enrich man’s spirit,” PBS, 50 years on, is doing more than informing — it is providing viewers something more substantial, more curated than is often available from commercial platforms via its arts programming, its science and nature programming and its enduringly popular “Masterpiece” dramas. And as it diversifies its platforms beyond broadcast, it is increasingly sourcing its relationships to its local member stations for content and ideas and more.
“People contribute to their public television stations locally because they trust them,” says Kerger. “They trust them, that they’re going to provide accurate information, that they’re going to play an important role in the life of their community. And so for us, trust has been very much at the heart of how we’ve stayed rooted all these years. Really, trust is something that is very carefully earned over time and can and can be lost in a moment if one isn’t vigilant.”